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Hidden In Plain Sight: Oldest Known Cookbook Authored By An African-American

Apr 15, 2019

Ever wonder what types of recipes were used for cooking over a century ago?  Thanks to a cookbook that's Hidden In Plain Sight at the University of Michigan, you no longer have to wonder and can recreate delicious recipes.  89.1 WEMU's Jorge Avellan has the story. 


"Domestic Cookbook Containing A Careful Selection Of Useful Receipts For The Kitchen."

Published in 1866, Malinda Russell’s cookbook is the oldest known cookbook authored by an African-American.  University of Michigan Special Collections Curator Juli McLoone gently flips through the 39 pages of the only original copy that remains today.  It contains 265 recipes.

"There’s an allspice cake, a coconut sponge cake, a couple of different lemon cakes.  Interestingly, we think of vanilla as the standard cake flavor today, but in the 19th century, lemon cake would have filled that role.  A lot of times rose water was also used for flavoring cakes and pastries.  She has a charlotte russe recipe, a baked peach cobbler, she has few savory recipes like a chicken pie, chow chow, catfish, also a number of custards.  Also a lot of jams and preserves, so cranberry jam, a couple of different quince jams," said McLoone.

The University of Michigan obtained the book in 2001 when it was donated by adjunct curator and special collections donor Jan Longone.

"She said, well, we found it in the bottom of a box," said Longone. 

Longone recalls when the seller called her to see if she was interested in purchasing the book.  It was part of the collection of California cookbook author and food writer Helen Evans Brown.  Longone says, thankfully, Malinda Russell wrote a short biography of herself in the book because not much is known about her life.  Longone reads part of the bio on why Russell left her home state of Tennessee. 

"On January 16th 1864, her money was stolen from her, probably by the KKK, by a guerilla party who threatened her life if she revealed who they were.  Quote, under these circumstances, we were obliged to leave home following a flag of truce out of the southern borders, being attacked several times by the enemy.  After hearing that Michigan was the garden of west, she moved to the Paw Paw area end quote," added Longone. 

It was in Michigan that Russell published her cookbook.  In it, we also learn that Russell was a free black woman who owned a pastry shop for six years.  Most of the recipes in the book are pastry delicacies.  And to bring back to life, a few of the over 150 year old recipes, I put on a hair net and met up with two chefs from the University of Michigan’s Dining Services.

"So I prepared the Rusk, that’s a yeast dough."

That’s Chef John Merucci.  Over a commercial kitchen table at the South Quad’s dining hall, he forms poker chip-size pieces of dough with a hole in the middle for a recipe simply called “Rusk.”

John: Into the fryer they go.  They’re a little bit heavy right now so they’re going to sink a little bit but then they will pop right back.  And we’ll give them a stir and flip them over, they will cook for about two and half minutes and it will come out like an old fashioned donut, if you’re familiar with that. 

Jorge: Nowadays, we put toppings on everything.  Did it say to put toppings or no? 

John: No, it didn’t.  And I was really debating because of the palate of today’s people, what about if I tossed it in powder sugar or cinnamon sugar, right.  Which we do today quite often, but then I’m like, no, we want to keep it kind of closer to what she did.  And I think that’s what we have here when these come out.

Now comes the fun part…

Jorge: That’s pretty good.  Very doughy like you said.

Chef Merucci explains Russell’s recipe a bit more.

"Compare to modern day recipes, the amount of yeast in this is quite a lot.  It’s not overly sweet, so there is some sweetness in there but it’s nice and warm right out of the fryer…that’s kind of nice," added Merucci.

As I sneak another bite of the Rusk, I walk over to Chef Jeremy Moser.  He uses a mixer machine to whip up an egg and sugar mixture for a Sweet Potato Baked Pudding.  Chef Moser explains what he found interesting about Russell’s cookbook.

Moser: I had to do research of what a drop was and what a gill was and different measurements that they used back then. 

Jorge: What are some of those recipes, if you remember, that you we’re just kind of like, I have no clue what that is? 

Jeremy: There is one that uses, it’s actually equivalent of an opioid drug, that’s used as a flavoring.  Obviously, we can’t procure that.  Alum was used a lot and that’s kind of hard to get and cook with.  It was a challenge but it was very interesting as well.

Chef Merucci had another surprise up his sleeve.  He decided to make Russell’s Rose Cake ahead of time.  He describes it as an airy, light sponge cake with icing.

"Basically, a nice caramel.  The icing is really what we would call a Swiss fondant.  Its egg whites again that are beaten, and then you cook sugar to the soft cracked stage and you would slowly add that into the egg whites, and you beat it, and the heat from the sugar cooks the egg white and gives you a nice glossy shine.  Kind of almost like a marshmallow texture to that icing," said Merucci.

As Chef Merucci cuts the cake into pieces, University of Michigan adjunct curator and donor of the book, Jan Longone walks over to me and we chat.  She’s been watching the chefs cook this whole time.

Jorge: What do you think Malinda would say, knowing that we’re doing all this today? 

Jan: I think she would be thrilled.

While Longone has cooked with Russell’s recipes over the years, she says something else makes her even happier.

"Wasn’t so interested in making them sort of speak, because what I wanted to do was get people to make them," said Longone. 

University of Michigan Marketing Manager Kelly Guralewski also joined us in this adventure, and was quickly inspired by Russell’s story.

"Just imagining her making these items and selling them in her shop.  Making a living off of that, and this was her pride," said Guralewski. 

University of Michigan student Elise Ellsworth had never heard of Malinda Russell or about her cookbook.  But once we told her about it, she wants to stop by the Special Collections Library to see the book in person.

"Almost every week that I’m here, I find out about something else that we have that just doesn’t make any sense.  It’s kind of cool because it’s old.  It’s cool being part of that and knowing that your university has that kind of information and that we keep those records, that’s something that’s important to them," said Ellsworth. 

University of Michigan Special Collections Curator Juli McLoone says food recipes aren’t the only thing you will find in the cookbook.

Juli: There’s a whole section on household hints and recipes.  So, barbers shampooing mixture, cologne, cures for corns, treatment for restoring hair to its original color, something she calls magnetic oil, a cure for rheumatism, and treatment for tooth ache. 

Jorge: Is that unusual to find those types of recipes in a cookbook? 

Juli: No, household treatments were very common in this time period.  And if you think about it, so most people when they became ill would be treated in the home.

Longone says she paid about $600 for Malinda Russell’s cookbook.  The University of Michigan says, to them, this treasure is priceless because it’s the only original copy they know that exists.  You can see it for yourself in person by making an appointment with the Special Collections Research Center at the University of Michigan.  A Domestic Cook Book is part of the Janice Bluestein Longone Culinary Archive.  You can also click here for a digital copy.  

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— Jorge Avellan is a reporter for 89.1 WEMU News. Contact him at 734.487.3363 or email him javellan@emich.edu